Colares Terroir

When I ran yesterday morning, I said hello to a neighbor, who answered my bom dia with a smile: “But, the weather! It’s 19 degrees here!” he said through the mist. “It was 35 degrees in London!” “É verão em Colares,” I replied. And it’s true, the saying, “Winter spends the summer in Colares.” With the exception of one weekend when we hit 35C while Lisboa sweltered at 44C just over the Serra da Sintra, we’ve had more of our normal “summer” than usual.

This weather doesn’t help most grapes. We live in a small but historic DOC, Colares, which has witnessed its land under vine diminish in the face of advancing real estate development. Some may find this an understandable progression—the area’s beauty and quiet combined with its proximity to Lisboa attracts second homeowners, tourists, and foreign residents like us.

But we also find ourselves charmed by the wine. The native grapes, Ramisco (red) and Malvasia de Colares (white), come from the time before the phylloxera louse ravaged Europe’s vitis vinifera vines. They survived because of their adaptation to the special Colares terroir—they thrive in sand, with their roots buried up to the fork by their cultivators. The louse cannot live in the sand, and thus found other tasty rootstock to devour.

These grapes also grow low, trained close to the soil, either left to their own sprawl or managed into canopies just a foot or two off the ground. The practice keeps the ripening grapes sheltered from the worst of the Atlantic’s winds, along with protection provided by bamboo fences and walls stacked from rocks and shingles. You can see the historic planting of the grapes and the harvest in this short documentary filmed in the 1930s. More modern ways fashion the ubiquitous green metal fencing and tarps into barriers, especially useful in the highest fields.

The wind brings with it humidity from the ocean, while at the same time ensuring that moist air circulates. I’ve never been as cold in winter as I have here, with the damp shadows off the sea scouring up the hills and through every gap between the windows. We never see snow here, and conversely, we never see summer’s brutal force.

Colares is not the coldest DOC in Portugal, in terms of growing degrees days (GDDs), but it ranks cooler than most all of them outside of the far northern Vinho Verde (also known for its acidic wines) and Trás-os-Montes (for its high elevations). The average growing season temperature (GST) hovers at 17.4C—a full 3 degrees lower than most of Alentejo in the center of Portugal. Carcavelos, a DOC just on the other side of the Serra da SIntra and also along the coast, is almost a degree warmer (18.3C). Our grapes here must be efficient collectors of the sun’s meagre offerings—and their acidity and minerality demonstrate their constant struggle.

The land itself struggles to stay in one place: We live on what’s essentially a giant dune, and its shape shifting shows in the heaving and cracking of every bit of asphalt coursing around our town. We call them “moles” for the mounds that appear, bumping up the roads and making it impossible to speed through (unless you’re a particular brand of Portuguese driver without concern for your undercarriage). I trip on them while running, so pervasively they grow. Every run in Portugal’s a trail run, between the moles and the calçadas (paver tiles) that turn so slippery when wet.

So what shall we see this year from the harvest? As we pass through veraison and enter the time of colheita (harvest) in the coming weeks, we’ll know if our adaptive grapes managed to make miracles from a summer that only arrived for three days.

That’s part of the wonder, and why I’ve fallen for our feisty little DOC—because a truism in winemaking is that grapes that struggle make more interesting wines. We taste it in the complexity of these wines that live long and come into their own as adults—not in the hot flash of youth, I recognize that in myself and respect it in the wines I adore.

Summer, warm or cool, asks for an easy lunch or supper, and in Portugal tostas can be found everywhere. Most common is the tosta mista, with ham and cheese. We create our own with herbes de Provence, local honey, island cheese from Açores, presunto, and lots of butter.

Grilled Presunto and Cheese Sandwich

Tosta Mista com Presunto e Quiejo

To make sandwiches for two

4 long slices of pão cereais or whole grain bread

100g or about 4 ounces presunto or prosciutto

100g or about 4 ounces sliced cheese

about 4 tablespoons of butter

1 teaspoon honey

1 teaspoon herbes de Provence

1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper

  1. Lay out all four slices of bread, and butter the upward-facing (interior) sides with about 2 tablespoons butter, or to taste.
  2. Drizzle the honey evenly on one buttered side for each sandwich.
  3. Sprinkle half of the herbes de Provence and Aleppo pepper over the honeyed butter.
  4. Layer half of the presunto and cheese on each of the honey-butter-herbed slices. Top with the other slice, and and you can cut each sandwich in half vertically for easier turning in the pan.
  5. Melt the other 2 tablespoons of butter in a sauté pan over medium hear, and bloom the rest of the herbes and pepper in the melted butter.
  6. Place two sandwich halves (or one whole) in the pan, and cover with a lid. Let brown for 2-4 minutes, then turn and finish on the other side, another 2-3 minutes. The cheese should be melted. Repeat with the other two sandwich halves (or other whole sandwich).